Let the fire wake us

Greeks who travel abroad are always surprised by the good-natured interest shown in Greece by people in foreign lands. Our little country – a rock at the end of the Balkans, broken and scattered across the surrounding seas – carries a lot of weight. The reasons are many: our ancient civilization, the adventurers of the diaspora who have taken root in even the most desolate outpost and the talent of Greeks to somehow find themselves at the center of events whose importance escapes the narrow borders of their country. Today, in our great crisis, the question is how the old image of Greece will be married to the new. How do others see us? How do we see ourselves? Who are we? There is no easy answer. The issue of identity is as fluid as time: We will know who we are only when we learn whether we have survived or whether we were lost in endless conflict with each other. The crisis is a fire that burns straw and strengthens steel. Only in the end will we know who we are. We are now facing this challenge because for too many years we did not know who we were nor where we wanted to go. Alliances with great powers obscured our own capacities and compensated for our failures. More recently, foreign money lifted us up like a wave and carried us along, and we believed that we did not need to learn to swim – until we saw the rocks ahead. We wanted to be whatever suited us on the occasion. We wanted to be members of a united Europe without obeying our own laws, let alone Europe’s; we wanted to borrow without repaying; we wanted rights without obligations, profits without cost, sacrifices from others but not from ourselves, justice without respect for the law. We marvel at our ancestors, forgetting how many defeats and how many compromises frame every bright moment, how much effort and skill must go into simply staying upright with dignity. We defined ourselves according to others, we misunderstood our present and our past. We believed that our name alone, our selective memory, had brought us to where we wanted to be and that there we would remain. We were wrong. Our great advantage – our name, our bright heritage – is an intolerable burden. Not because we will never reach the heights of our ancestors but because our image of our ancestors is hopelessly warped. The reality of the few centuries of Greek brilliance has been distilled and filtered through the desires and ideals of the Enlightenment and the needs of a Greek national consciousness. No nation can achieve such concentrated wisdom, freed of the dross of the everyday, as that which has survived to today. Our heritage, though, shows the only way out of today’s crisis. I am not referring only to the need to study and display our civilization with greater care and inspiration than we do now. We have to mirror our ancestors. Because the reason that Greece is known across the world is none other than the spread of the ideas that they developed. Our land itself, its monuments and the arts of the ancients play a great role in how foreigners «see» Greece as a concept, but it is the written words, the ideas, that matter most, whether these are expressed through art, philosophy or medicine. The world admires the ancient Greeks because through their myths and their writing humanity’s great adventure was expressed in the clearest way, with its fears, its hopes, its joy, its defeats and its great leaps into the unknown. The greatest achievement of the Greeks was their use of language, in prose, polemic and poem, to achieve the transubstantiation of the personal and the ephemeral into the eternal. In politics, they experimented with many forms of government; breaking the mold of millennia, they even touched on democracy for a while. Each success, though, was tempered by failure, each Socrates overwhelmed by a mob and by history. The ancient Greeks are useful not only because we bask in their reflected glory but because they can serve as an example. We are at a dead end. Our friends pity us, others mock. Our society is in danger of breaking up. We can expect no deus ex machina. It is time for us to think, to grab ideas out of the air. To create. Against all odds, we must become worthy successors. Let the fire wake us.